Celebrating Women in Sustainability: Karrie Denniston
I’ve always loved nature. As a kid, nature fueled my imagination – it was dirt to play in, trees for forts and flowers and rocks for art projects. As I got older, nature also became a provider, not only of physical things like food from the garden, but also of needed space. There is just no replacement for a hike or a run in the woods when you need to think.
While I appreciated nature, I didn’t expect sustainability to be such an important part of my career. The first chapter of my work focused on how to lend my strengths to addressing hunger and increasing access to healthier food. I spent most of my time in the nonprofit sector, at the local, regional and national level in the US trying to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of food related policies and programs.
It turns out that the more you pull on the threads of the food system, the more you are led right back to the point of production. It didn’t take long to see that, in the long-term, global food security is deeply dependent on soil health, water quality and quantity, biodiversity, and resilience in the face of climate change.
I joined the Walmart team nearly nine years ago, and today, as the Senior Director of Sustainability at Walmart.org, my role helps figure out how to leverage the work of Walmart and the Walmart Foundation to create more sustainable supply chains that are good for both people and the planet. As part of that work, we recently announced a deepened commitment to nature, to help protect, restore or more sustainably manage at least 50M acres of land and 1M sq miles of ocean by 2030.
Achieving this level of aspiration comes with many challenges and opportunities. The most obvious obstacle is the complexity of it all. Walmart has retail and sourcing operations across the globe, and in many supply chains there are multiple steps between the point of production and products on the shelf. I’ve found that having a clear goal and principles to help guide prioritization are both key for staying focused on the things that have the greatest potential impact and chance for driving lasting change.
Another challenge is figuring out how to shift the incentives that made things the way they are today. Our approach is not about driving a collection of individual actions, but about supporting whole-system change. Some of our tools are tangible, like setting policies to encourage more sustainable practices, or encouraging suppliers to set goals and report on action. But others are more subtle, like shifting mindsets and beliefs about what might even be possible. Last fall, our CEO Doug McMillon challenged us with this question – what would it take for us to be a more regenerative company? This is a mindset shifting question. Simply asking creates new space for innovation.
While this work is challenging, complex and urgent, there are many reasons to be optimistic. We have sustainability leaders everywhere, with incredibly diverse perspectives and ideas. Sustainability is a part of all our lives, even if we don’t think about it in those terms each day. A farmer tending her crop, a community leader assessing policy choices, a corporate leader making buying decisions, an academic mining data for insights, consumers making purchasing decisions – even a little girl exploring nature to fuel her imagination…they are all sustainability leaders. Our work is to help them realize it. Together we can create a powerful movement.
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of WWF.